It is said that “Absolute power corrupts”. Hence the post-Roman era is typically referred to as the Dark ages, since it was the period when Christianity held absolute power, which resulted in widespread destruction and corruption of everything that it touched. However, what was it like when Christianity was struggling to acquire power ? What effect did it have during that time? These are the questions that Catherine Nixey’s book titled The Darkening Age attempts to answer. And it sheds light on some of the facts hitherto brushed under the carpet by the historians who have told the story of the triumph of Christianity based on christian sources, and thus, presented the narrative of a decadent barbarian empire which was saved by Christianity. However, this was not the case. The tale of Christianity acquiring power over Rome is one that brought great amount of sorrow to the classical world. Hence, “The Darkening Age” is an apt metaphor for those times.
Early on in the book, Nixey explores the motivation of the Christians to convert the Empire. Was it to provide a balm against the decadence, the corruption and the overindulgence present in the Roman empire with their multiple Gods, their silly myths, superstitious rituals, none of which could provide solace to the distressed population suffering from the raging plague and war? Though the later historians present the triumph of Christianity in these terms, Nixey reveals a far more basic reason – From the point of view of the early Christians, Rome had to be Christianized in order to win the war between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. Christians were the followers of God, while the Roman empire was the very house of Satan! Nixey explores the obsession that early Christians had with demons. There were elaborate demonologies that delved deep into the classification of the demons based on their appearances, their powers and the manner in which they can be defeated. And most of these demons, wrote the Christian writers, “hung around like flies around the corpse on the statues of the Roman Gods – Jupiter, Aphrodite, Bacchus, Isis”. It was demons who put the delusion of other religions into the minds of the humans, these writers noted. Augustine wrote, “All pagans were under the power of demons. Temples were built to demons, altars were setup to demons, priests ordained for the service of demons, sacrifices offered to demons, and ecstatic ravers were brought in as prophets for demons.”. In a classic demonisation trope, Tertullian said that those who criticized Christianity were not speaking with a free mind , instead were attacking the Christians because they were under the control of Satan and his foot-soldiers. Demons were able to take possession of men’s souls and block up their hearts to stop them from believing in Christ. This was the justification for disrupting the Pagan modes of worships, for desecrating their temples, for defiling their altars, for these were not acts of intolerance, but were some of the most virtuous things a man might do. The Christian Bible demanded it. Deuteronomy instructed, “And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place“.
For the first century there is no mention of Christianity in any of the Roman works, perhaps because the Romans dismissed them as yet another weird cult. However, they started facing ideological resistance in the 2nd century. In 170 CE, the Roman Philosopher Celsus wrote a scathing criticism of the Christian religion in his “On the True Doctrine“. He noticed that not only were the early Christians ignorant, but they paraded their ignorance as a badge of honor. He also said that they would seek out the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children and “dripped honeyed intellectual poison into uneducated ears“. Neither were the Christians the first to make fantastic claims, nor were they right in their claims, for there were numerous cults, which made such illogical claims. However, it is interesting to note that in the refutations of such supernatural claims, the case of Simon the Magus for example, Christian writers didn’t refute the ability of opponents to perform miracles, but merely their divine right to do so. So in the case of someone like Simon the Magus, they insisted that his powers were not from God, but, ‘by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him‘! The other trope that was used by the Christians to irritate the Romans and recruit more members into their cult was the trope of Martyrdom. There were legitimate cases where Christians suffered atrocities under the hands of Roman emperors – example Nero in 64CE, Decian in 250 CE, Valerian in 257 CE and the great persecution in 303 CE. However, the Martyrdom stories of Christianity seem to make it as if the Christians were hounded for their belief when in most cases they were punished for disrupting law and order and their stubbornness in the court of law. Nixey quotes many historians of such as Keith Hopkins, Candida Moss who have critically analyzed the myth of martyrdom. If anything, the Roman governors were very kind, who gave ample opportunities to the Christians to escape punishment. They were clueless as to why these Christians would seek martyrdom, ignoring the pleas of their families, ignoring the glorious life that was there for them. Why would anyone reject the beautiful life and beg for death, they wondered. It becomes clear, that martyrdom was a sure shot way for many who were nobodies in the Roman society to be recognized, celebrated and immortalized. Martyrdom was bestowed even upon those people who were killed in minor skirmishes with the Pagans, when as a part of the mob, they ventured to destroy Pagan temples! There were suicidal cults such as Circumcellions who yearned martyrdom! While the Romans were incredibly tolerant with the stubborn Christians for centuries, when the latter usurped power, they wasted no time in passing laws to abolish the Roman practice of their religion.
The power came to the Christian hands when in 312CE, Constantine converted to Christianity. Following his conversion, the church started being paid vast sums of money. Constantine was able to obtain these funds from destroying the statues of the pagans, and recovering the precious metals to be found there. Constantine also carted away some of the precious sculptures to his new city Constantinople where he would display them as a mark of Christian victory over the superstitious Pagans. Encouraged by these acts of the emperor, a flourishing business for plundered arts began and Christians started taking the risk of confronting the demons to salvage good art that can be sold for a hefty sum of money. The tolerance of the Christians ,or the lack thereof, can be seen from the fact that during the time of Constantine’s conversion, the total number of Christians in the empire were not more than 10% of the total population. However, within a hundred years, there weren’t more than 10% Pagans. Thus, while Roman “persecution” of the Christians left it vigorous enough that it took control of an empire and ruled for over a millennia, by the time the Christian persecutions had finished, an entire religious system had been all but wiped from the face of the earth! Nixey words, “For those who wish to be intolerant, monotheism provides very powerful weapons” are quite apt here.
In the remainder of the book, Nixey documents the destruction of the Classical world at the hands of this cult. She documents the destruction of the classical world, its temples, its arts, its book. She poignantly describes how, the death of the classical age within a couple of centuries of the Christian cult gaining power over Rome.
Here we would like to focus on understanding three key aspects involved in the destruction of the classical age, namely Iconoclasm, Cultural appropriation, and Legal subjugation and compare, how these aspects played a role in establishing Christianity in India, through the Portuguese invasion of Goa.
Nixey documents the destruction of the Classical world at the hands of this Christian cult. This includes the destruction of countless temples, books and works of art. The Temple Of Serapis in Alexandria which was the pride of the classical world, was destroyed in 392CE by the ravaging bands under the guidance of the Bishop Theophilus. The first Christian emperor Constantine would himself lavishly fund the clergy of the Church from destroying the statues of the pagans, and recovering the precious metals to be found there. Constantin didn’t even bother repairing the temples which he had looted, thus leaving them to decay. The list of temples destroyed by the Christian cults included Aphrodite in Athens, Demeter in Cyrene, Bacchus in Tuscany, Hera in the Sparta, Apollo in Salamis, Athena in Palmyra, Minerva in Germany, Serapis in Alexandria, Mithras in Rome. The early Christians who undertook the destruction of temples justified their iconoclam citing the very first commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. It is interesting to note that some of the famous saints of Christianity started their careers as shrine destroyers – St Martin of Tours, St Benedict of Nursia, Chrysostom of Antioch, St Augustine (who told Christians of Carthage to smash the pagan objects).
In the Chapter 8 of the book Nixey provides ample amount of evidences of iconoclasm and the methods adopted to achieve them. There were laws which, in order to snub the pagans, declared that the portions of the destroyed temples were to be used to repair roads, bridges and aqueducts. The motivation for partial disfiguration of statues seems to come from the Jewish tract Avodah Zarah as per which in order to properly mutilate a statue (to drive the demon out of them), one should be “cutting off the tip of the ear, or nose or finger, by battering it –even though bulk of it is not diminished — it is desecrated.” One cannot help but find similarities to the destruction of the temples in India at the hands of the Muslims, which resulted in the chipped noses and broken limbs of the statues therein. Thus, there seems to be a method in this iconoclasm madness which has been passed on as a heirloom from one Abrahamic religion to the next.
We find similar instances of destructions of temples in Goa under the Portuguese rule as documented by Anant Kakba Priolkar in his book “The Goa Inquisition”. In a report submitted to the King of Portugal by Bispo de Dumense in 1522, “It will be service to God if these temples in the island of Goa are destroyed and in their stead churches with saints are erected”. There were laws which forbade Hindus from either constructing or renovating any temples in the Portuguese territory. Jesuit historian Fransisco de Souza gives an account of the migration of Sri Mangesh from Kushasthal/Kuthal (now known as Cortalim) in 1560s to Priol. The marble stone in the current Mangesh temple corroborates this.
The destructions of temples in Sashashti (Salcette), Rachol, Cuncolim, Chinchinim, Ambelim, Bardez are well documented, and the number of temples destroyed in Salcette is 280, in Bardez is 300.
Priolkar also mentions that that the images found in the destroyed temples were thrown into the rivers or melted to make candlesticks and other objects for the use in the local church.
One of the reasons why we find the various temples of the Gauda Saraswath Brahmins including the Sri Ramanath, Shantadurga, Sri Nagesh, Sri Mangesh, Mahalasa Narayani, in the vicinity of Ponda is because the Kulavis of these temples fled from the Portuguese territory to Ponda with their Gods, since in those days Ponda was outside the Portuguese territory. This experience, of crossing over to a non-portuguese territory, is captured in the Konkani song “Haav saiba Poltudi vaita” where, as Shefali Vaidya explains, a lady asks the boatman to take her across the river, meaning to the non-Portuguese side, offering him her ornaments in return. However, the boatman refuses, out of fear for the authorities, should he get caught.
Thus, the iconoclasm that occurred in Rome in the previous millennia repeated with perhaps greater fervor in the second half of the second Millenia in Goa.
As we can know from Celsus’s critique, the early Christians took great pride being anti-intellectual for their faith which was good enough to get them access into the Gates of the Heaven. However, faith alone was not sufficient to get Christianty “…entry into the elite villas of Rome”. The world of the elites in Rome took pride in the beauty, grandeur found in the classical works and possessed an acute ear for accents. The language of the Bible was jarring to their ears. Compared to the intellectual achievements of the Pagans, the Christians had nothing to offer to the Roman elites. And without the conversion of the elites, there was always a risk that the plebs would return to their old ways.
Thus, Christian writers such as St Augustine and St Jerome employed their classical training in the service of Christianity so that the Roman elite could be converted and, more importantly, retained within the fold of Christianity. St Ambrose interpreted Stoics for Christianity, St Augustine himself adapted the Roman oratory for Christian purposes. The philosophical terms of the greeks were appropriated and made a part of the Christian vocabulary. And appropriation wasn’t merely restricted to the vocabulary and philosophy, but even the literary style. Gospel of John was written as a Homeric Epic, Epistles and Gospels were written as Socratic dialogues. Thinkers from long ago, were adopted as “unwitting ancestors” of the Christian tradition if their work had the slightest resemblance to Christianity. An example – Socrates was called a Christian before Christ!
When the lay Christians who weren’t amused with this sudden sophistication accused St. Jerome of indulging in secular works of the Pagans, he supposedly retorted saying, “Deuteronomy allowed a captive woman to be taken as a wife once her head was shaved, her eyebrows and hair cut off and nails pared. Thus, admiring the fairness of the form of the secular wisdom, I desire to make this captive my handmaid a matron of True Israel. Once I shave off all that is dead be that idolatry, pleasure, error or lust, I take her to myself clean and pure and beget by her servants for the Lord of Sabath“. This was the justification of what Rajiv Malhotra refers to as Digestion in his writings.
In the Indian context, it is interesting to note that the Portuguese used force and violence their use of cultural appropriation was very limited. Except for one prominent case of the Jesuit Priest named D. Nobili who dressed up as a Hindu Sanyasi and called himself a “Romaka Brahmana” and managed to convert several Hindus from Madura and surround areas into Christianity. Unfortunately, even this too didn’t sit well with the Archbishop of Goa, who wanted to drag D. Nobili to the inquisition court and punish him for Idolatry.
With the benefit of the hindsight, we now know that D.Nobili’s methods would have definitely aided in the cause of conversion of the heathens. His methods are being widely employed today times with the Bible being called the “Satya Veda”, Churches built in style of Hindu Temples, complete with Dhwajasthamba, lamps and everything. There is a Yesu Sahasranama modelled after Vishnu Sahasranama, and Kristubhagavatam, a Mahakavya written in Sanskrit. And most recently we were made aware of the existence of Christian Carnatic Music, where Kritis praising the Lord and his son Jesus were sung in the tunes of Carnatic Music. The scholar Sita Ram Goel has undertaken a detailed study of the tactics used by the Missionaries to appropriate the Hindu culture, in his essay “Catholic Ashrams: Adopting and Adapting Hindu Dharma” .
Perhaps in each of these cases, the justification that the Christians provide would be the same as what the Christian apologist Jerome has given. But it has its origins in the Bible itself. As the author of “The Goblin Market: A critical examination of the missionary appeals to the Hindus” notes, the root of this cultural appropriation goes back to Paul the apostle who said to the Christian community at Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings”.
A key feature associated with the spread of Christianity across the world is the effectiveness with which they passed and implemented laws that discriminated against the Pagans.
From Nixey’s book, we learn that it began with Constantine who on acquiring power in 324 CE, passed laws that forbade pagan governors from sacrificing or worshiping idols, pollutions of idolatry, to prevent setting up cult objects, offering sacrifices. Also passed laws to build the churches in large numbers. In 341 CE, Constantius, son of Constantine banned sacrifices and closed the temples. In 356CE, worshipping images was illegal “on the pain of death”. In 382 CE, Christian Emperor Gratian order that the Altar of Victory in the senate house of Rome, which for centuries had been offered offerings before the meetings of the /senate, to be moved out of senate. In 391 CE, emperor Theodosius passed a law that said, “No person shall be granted the right to perform sacrifices; no person shall go around the temples; no person shall revere the shrines”. Worship of the household gods, burning lights to them, or putting wreaths to them or even burning incense was forbidden. In 399 CE, new law was passed which said that “If there should be any temple in the country districts, they shall be torn down without disturbance or tumult. For when they are destroyed and removed, the material basis for superstition will be destroyed”. Codex Theodosianus, XV.1.36, dated Nov 397,announced that stones from demolished temples should be used to repair roads, bridges and aqueducts. In 408 CE, Codex Theodosianus, 126.96.36.199 declared that “If any images stand even now in the temples and shrines, they shall be torn from their foundations… The buildings themselves of the temples which are situated in cities or towns or outside the towns shall be vindicated to public use. Altars shall be destroyed in all places”. In 407 CE , the old merry ceremonies were forbidden. If anyone declared themselves an official in charge of pagan festival, then they would be executed under law. However, some of these laws were hard to Police. This is where early church father Chrysostom’s genius idea of suggesting to the congregations to spy on each other ensured that the laws were effectively followed. People could be reported by their fellowmen if they were seen to be going to the theatre or even possessing Pagan books. Family members were encouraged to spy on each other. Moral policing was also undertaken by Monks. A prominent example being that of an Egyptian monk named Shenoute who ran the White Monastery in Egypt. He is recorded to have broken in and desecrated the worship place inside the house of a pagan named Flavius Aelius Gessius. When Shenoute was criticized, he responded saying “There is no crime for those who have Christ”. When Justinian came to power in 527 CE, he undertook the job of reforming the morality of his subjects with a great zeal. As a part of this activity, civil officials were required to enforce laws in privacy of homes of the citizens. Any road that could lead to sin would be closed by Justinian. A violent cult called as Circumcellions would enforce these laws even if they had to resort to violence. It must be noted here that for the early Christians, use of violence wasn’t sin, but it was kindness, education and reformation as it t was helping the sinners to cleanse themselves of pagan errors.
However, the cruelest blow to the Pagans came in 529 CE when Justinian passed a law which forbade “… the teaching of any doctrine by those who labor under the insanity of paganism so that they may not corrupt the souls of their disciples.”
This resulted in the closing down of the famous Academy of Athens, which was the house of learning in the land, who patron goddess was Athena, the Goddess of wisdom. This academy housed an unbroken thousand year old philosophical tradition starting from Plato was finally closed down. Philosopher Damascius, led the exodus of the other Philosophers out of Athens to Persia. He was in his sixties when this happened.
Far away on the shores of Goa, between the 16th and the 19th century, the children of Saraswati endured a similar fate due to the laws enacted by the Portuguese Christians which forced them to migrate out of their homelands. There are evidences of multiple proclamations by the viceroy starting from 1560, which would require Brahmins, Physicians and other members who were “prejudicial to Christianity” and “great impediments in the way of conversion” to move out of the Portuguese lands. These people had a month’s time to dispose of all their property. There were laws which prevented Hindus from performing their religious ceremonies in the Portuguese territory. The order passed on January 31, 1620 read “In the Name of His Majesty, I order that as from the date of the publication of this order, no Hindu, of whatever nationality or status he may be, can or shall perform marriages in this city of Goa, nor in the islands or adjacent territories of His Majesty, under the fine of 1000 Xerafins…”. Hindus were forbidden from anointing their foreheads with sandalwood paste and tilak. In 1679, the Viceroy D. Pedro de Almeida permitted Hindus to celebrate marriages in their houses, but only behind closed doors, with armed guards standing outside the houses to prevent Bottos (Portuguese corruption of Bhats, who would officiate the marriage) of Hindu temples from entering the house for performing sacrifices or any other Hindu rites. Christians who attended or watched such marriages would liable for punishment. The thread-ceremony (Brahmopadesham) of young Hindu boys could only be performed outside the Portuguese territory. The 3rd Concilio Provincial in 1585 in fact recommended the King to forbid the Hindus from wearing their sacred threads or from initiating their sons into wearing the sacred thread. In 1680, an order was passed which prohibited Hindus from observing a ceremony of keeping a vigil on the 6th day after the birth of a child. Apart from this, there were laws which required that “all Hindus should come with thier families to places assigned for the purpose to listen to the preachings of Holy Gospels”
There were laws, like the royal decree of 1582 which prohibited Hindus from entering public service. In 1591 a law was passed which emphasised that “no officials should utilize the services of Brahmins or other Hindus, nor enter the houses of the latter, nor speak or have dealings with the latter directly or through third parties, under the pain of being suspended from their offices”
Further, the Hindu Gaonkars (original inhabitants of the village) of Salcette were stripped of their rights and previleges. Those Gaonkars who converted to Christianity were allowed to retain the same previleges.
Apart from this there were laws such as the one passed by the controller of finances in 1541 which told the Hindus “that they should out of their free will, be prepared to give and donate the income of lands belonging to the temples ….. The income should in future be applied towards and donated to the chapels built in this island, and also to defray the expenses of the confraternity of the converts to the faith.”
However the cruel law, what led to maximum number of conversions was the one which required that any Hindu child whose father and mother were both dead had to be handed over to the Church to be baptised and indoctrinated by the clergymen. The earliest such law was passed in 1559, which was endorsed by the viceroy in 1564 and by the Governor in 1575. Those relatives who attempted to hide the fact that there was an orphan in the family or attempted to move such orphans out of the state were punished under law. Many a times children were taken away by force, even when both the parents were alive. This was a constant complain by the residents to the King of Portugal and one of the key factors for the dispute between the Portuguese and Shivaji. When such children were baptised, a share of the ancestral property automatically went to the children. Many a times, the surviving parent or the nearest relatives would also convert to Christianity in order to be with the child. Thus, these laws ensured that the church caught hold of the Hindu kids at an early age and indoctrinated them, following which out of love for the kids, the remaining family members also converted.
Laws were also passed to make conversion to Christianity attractive. In 1570, a decree passed would exempt land taxes of a new convert for a period of fifteen years. In 1592, a proclamation by the viceroy declared that slaves who converted to Christianity would be freed. Laws were passed to allow the property of Hindu to go to his widow or daughter if they converted to Christianity. If they refused, the property would go to the nearest relative who had converted to Christianity. Furthermore, if a son or a daughter of a Hindu would convert to Christianity, then they would be entitled to one-third of the father’s estate, even when the father was alive.
This carrots and sticks approach was a one which was consciously adopted. Fr Alessandro Valignano who was the Visitor of the Missions, wrote, “As regards to the first duty, i.e., conversion of unbelievers, in these parts of India do not commonly occur as a result of sermons & doctrine, but is effected by other ‘just’ means such as:
- Obstructing Idolatrous practices & meting them just punishment
- Refusing them favours which can be justly refused & offering them to those who are newly converted.
- Honouring, assisting and protecting the latter in order that others might thereby get converted.”
Among the various weapons in the proselytizers’ toolkit, by far the most effective one was law.
Consequences Of Christianity’s Victory Over Roman Pagans
From both Nixey’s book as well as Priolkar’s book, we can note that triumph of Christianity and the destruction of Paganism is not a happy tale. On the contrary, it is a very sad one. While in the Indian case, the memory survives through those whose families survived and migrated to far off places, in case of the classical age, there is no living memory of the incident. What is left are the works from the classical age, the literature, the defaced sculptures act as mute witnesses to this sad story.
E A Judge once asked, “What difference did it make to Rome to have been converted?”
To a post-Christian author like Nixey, the difference is visible in the profound change in our attitudes towards food and sex due to Christianity compared to that in the Roman times where these were aspects of Kama, to be indulged in without giving in to excess. However the Christian view of both of these was evil, and hence had to be shunned as much as possible.
We can certainly agree with this assessment of Nixey that our attitudes towards these have drastically been impacted by Christianity. However, as a surviving Pagan civilization, we can see that there are more important things that changed, which Nixey fails to mention in her book. This silence perhaps answer eloquently what difference it made to Rome to have been converted. The interactions that the Romans had with the Divine, their Mythology, their Sacred arts, the ability to sacralize life, the ability to view science, arts, rituals within the common framework of things that can produce Vidya – these things aren’t even spoken about, or even considered worthy of lament. This outlook that the Romans had is not unlike the Hindu outlook, where a learned person was equally at home performing rituals to the Devas while indulging in highly abstract mathematical/computational work, and be able to describe these in through ornate poetic language. There was no fake distinction between Science, Art, Rituals that we see even in the post-Christian world. Life was one unified whole where pursuit of the three Purusharthas was simultaneously sought for. While Renaissance was able to revive science & art, these were still garbed in the Christian clothing. Further, Renaissance wasn’t able to revive the Pagan religion, despite the fact that it indulged in the fruits of the Pagan religion.
Thus, the inability to understand western culture on its own terms is biggest difference that conversion of Rome has resulted in. And due to the predatory nature of Christianity, aided by colonization & later on globalization, this attitude has spread all over the world. The effects of this can be seen among the modern educated Hindus whose worldview is shaped by the prevalent western discourse, and hence, they are unable to evaluate their own culture in a sympathetic manner. We see the effect of this in how the laws of this land are drafted and interpreted by such people who aren’t able to comprehend centuries old Hindu traditions, such as that of the temple traditions of Sabarimala, since the western frame of reference, that they are trained to view the world with, is devoid of categories for pagan traditions.
Nixey’s book is highly recommended to every Hindu who will see a glimpse of his own civilization in the classical Rome suffering at the hands of Christianity. The motives, methods & madness of the followers of this cult is similar to the other cults whose acts brought much suffering to our Hindu ancestors. The use of the legal framework to subjugate the Pagans, the deceptions, the subversion of their culture, art, science – these are things that a keen observer can identify happening in our country even to this date.
To understand how the madness of Religion of Love began and spread, do read this book.
Title: The Darkening Age
Author: Catherine Nixey
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Title: The Goa Inquisition : The Terrible Tribunal for the East
Author: A. K. Priolkar
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